Now that I'm nearly at the end of the show's four-season run* I find myself having to rethink my assessment of it. Up until now, I've always thought of B5 as a better-than-average show with a poor first season, an execrable fifth season, and three deeply flawed yet ultimately successful middle seasons.
This is a common enough perspective on the five year run of B5 – that much of the first year can be skipped, and that, moreover, the show would’ve been better off if it had ended after year four. But whenever anyone – even someone as intelligent as WQ – minimizes the importance of the bookend years, flawed and uneven though they were, she (for the duration of this post, I’m going to use “she” for convenience’s sake) announces to me that she is about to miss some critical points.
The overblown dialogue, the broad humor, the melodramatic plots, the frequent monologues and speeches, and just in general the show's palpable sense of its own profundity must have been irresistible to the teenage set--
No B5 fan I know has ever claimed that JMS doesn’t have a weakness for expository speeches, or that he’s a comic genius. On the other hand, the theatricality of the show’s dialogue is not an illegitimate form of storytelling and not wholly without precedent. This complaint here leads me to wonder whether WQ also hates the opera or musical theater, for surely the concept of a cast of characters singing through their lives in a stylized manner must offend her militant sense of realism.
B5 is a space opera. I don’t think anyone’s denying that.
Who but a teenager, after all, could watch an EarthGov representative, who has just negotiated a non-aggression treaty with the patently evil Centauri,
Okay, pause the tape.
Surely WQ meant to say “the patently evil Centauri government”, right? Surely she doesn’t mean to implicate an entire race based on the actions of a few of its high-born representatives, particularly when that race organizes its society along rigidly hierarchical lines and essentially denies a political voice to the majority of its empire’s citizens. Right?
It’s a small nitpick, but I feel it’s indicative of one of WQ’s major misunderstandings, which will be discussed shortly.
Now, continue tape.
blissfully announce that "we will finally have peace in our time" without rolling their eyes? Who else would put up with entire paragraphs from 1984 being turned into dialogue for Night Watch representatives?
Yes, JMS’s allegories are pretty bluntly – and sometimes clumsily - drawn, and that is a weakness in the writing. On the other hand, JMS is not the only writer who is guilty of this. I can select a number of Trek episodes that are equally obvious.
WQ then quotes another reviewer who essentially complains about the plot-driven nature of the show as a whole, which, as WQ later goes on to elaborate, occasionally sacrifices character on the alter of The Arc, a critique that I’m willing to concede contains some measure of truth. The failure on the part of the heroes to financially and emotionally support their ally, Lyta Alexander, thus driving her to the Psi Corps and, ultimately, to Byron, is one example of a character choice that seems, to me, to be driven more by the plot than by the logics of character. Fandom has since wanked the reasons for this development, as it has wanked the reasons for Lennier’s fall, but the filmed canon itself does sell both of these stories drastically short. Indeed, sometimes I do wonder whether my love of B5 is due in large part to fandom, which has massaged the characters of filmed canon into intelligible wholes.
Take "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum", one of the most important episodes in the second season—
Sheridan's choice to release Morden is a pivotal moment for the character--by doing so, he is committing himself to the fight against the Shadows and making the first of many painful sacrifices to that cause. It's a decision reached with the help of a history lesson: as Sheridan tells Zack, during WWII Churchill chose not to evacuate a city he knew was about to be bombed by the Germans in order not to reveal that the Allies had cracked the German codes. If we're to believe Straczynski, Sheridan's situation parallels Churchill's--both men were forced to make a painful sacrifice in order to ensure the greater good. But, of course, the two situations aren't even remotely comparable. Churchill was forced to choose between the certain death of thousands of his citizens if he didn't order the evacuation and the possible subjugation of his entire country if the Germans changed their codes and the Allies lost the war. Sheridan is forced to choose between personal vengeance and the fate of the entire galaxy. Neither decision is easy, but only Sheridan's has an obvious right choice. In other words, Sheridan makes one of the most important choices of his life because he's a bad historian, and the fact that Straczynski expects us not to notice this--the fact that he seems not to have noticed it himself--indicates a sloppiness in his writing that tracks with Eden's view of him as a big picture man who can't, or won't, erect a proper foundation for the towers in his mind.
WQ is right here. In fact, it occurs to me that if JMS wanted to use the Churchill parallel, there is a far more appropriate canonical event for which this historical connection can be made: the bombing of Narn. As Delenn reveals to G’Kar in the third season, it was known long before the Centauri bombardment that the Shadows had a connection in the Centauri government. But if Delenn and the others had acted on this intelligence, they would’ve played their hand too early and the Shadows might’ve won the war.
Or take Londo Molari,
one of the most important characters on the show. According to Straczynski, Londo is a tragic figure--motivated by the desire to see his people regain their place as a major galactic power, Londo gives the Shadows a foothold on his planet and in its government, and soon finds himself in over his head as they begin setting up his species for a massive fall. And I'm sorry, but that's not what's showing up on screen. The Londo we see is a horrible person, who knowingly does horrible things for reasons which are, OK, vaguely honorable**
** Inasmuch as "the Narns have offended my sense of racial pride and therefore they should be subjugated, oppressed, killed off by the thousands, humiliated, and generally made to suffer" can be considered an honorable motive.
And this is where WQ’s dismissal of the first season rears its head. Londo doesn’t just decide one day that he can’t suffer the Narns to live simply because of their existence as a now free people. There is a context - a context with which everyone should be familiar. In brief, the Narns in the first season are an objective threat to the Centauri.
In Midnight on the Firing Line, the Narns seize a civilian colony by military force, an event that everyone present considers a poorly justified act of aggression, including G’Kar himself, who feels compelled to hide his knowledge of the specifics of the attack because he knows no one will support him, age-old claims to the territory notwithstanding. Delenn acknowledges the Narn’s claim to Ragesh III, but, crucially, she also understands the complexities on the ground that exist in the aftermath of a colonial occupation and peace treaty and, I believe, refuses to support the Narn military’s action on those grounds.
And what does the Centauri government do in response to the attack on one of their outlying colonies? They decide that one little colony on the edge of their empire isn’t worth the bother of rounding up the military and inflaming the conflict with their formal colonial holding. If I were Centauri, I myself would consider this a betrayal. Is it not a government’s duty to protect its citizens from attack?
Ragesh III sets up the pattern for the entire season – one of repeated demands for “breathing room” (sound familiar?) from the Narn and repeated retreats by Turhan’s government, with each retreat further inflaming the Narn ambition for vengeance and, in G’Kar’s case at least, genocide. G’Kar isn’t kidding about those bone flutes, and it’s very likely he isn’t alone.
None of the above is intended to deny that the Centauri brought this aggression upon themselves by subjugating the Narn for a century in the first place. But how would you expect a fiercely - and, in some ways, blindly - patriotic Centauri to respond to his government’s seeming disregard for the welfare of his own people, illustrated especially by the abandonment of Ragesh III?
In this case, JMS has in fact set up an honorable motive for Londo – namely, the desire to protect his own people – and that motive remains throughout the run of the show. Here, JMS’s characterization is consistent.
but still not a sufficient excuse
I don’t think JMS intends to excuse Londo. He says repeatedly in his commentary that Londo brought his ultimate fate upon himself.
and his exploitation by the Shadows can only be explained by his having the political instincts of a stunned wombat, which is plainly not the case.
Wrong again. In reality, Londo is only fooled by the Shadows twice – in the first season, and with the death of Adira, and these can be plausibly explained by lack of knowledge and extreme emotional upset respectively. The rest of the time, he knows exactly what calling upon the Shadows’ help means, and in fact, as minions go, he is a pretty poor one, telling Morden to bugger off in the third season, actively frustrating the Shadows’ attempts to engender total war by insisting Centauri Prime be protected above all else, and utterly refusing to allow the Shadows to install a base at the heart of the empire. No, most of the time, Londo’s political instincts remain in tact.
Londo is a mass of contradictions--one moment he's cringing at the bombardment of the Narn homeworld, and the next he's congratulating Vir for personally orchestrating the deaths of thousands of Narns (in reality, Vir has smuggled the Narns to safety, a grave disappointment to Londo)--which in the real world would suggest not a complicated personality but a sociopathic one,
Or, perhaps, a personality that is more comfortable with the abstraction than the brutal reality, not to mention a personality that divides public from private.
Because J. Michael Straczynski is not only a talentless hack, he's a talentless hack who truly believes himself to be God's gift to the writing profession (go read some of his comments on The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5--just pick an episode at random. I dare you not to come away from them feeling that Straczynski has an ego the size of China).
Sure – JMS has an ego. He also kept up a running dialogue with the fans before podcasts were invented, and for that, I must give him credit.
He failed as a director--apart from the CGI battles, B5 had a static, lifeless look. It's probably not fair to blame him for the show's paltry effects budget and for working at the very forefront of CGI (although some of the Vorlon ships look like they belong in a screen-saver), but he certainly failed to make Babylon 5 look like a real place--inside and out, it was textureless.
I find it very difficult to declare the show that brings us the sartorial genius of the Centauri - or the crowded Zocalo and alien sectors -“textureless.” I shall have to chalk this up to personal taste – and also remind WQ that it wasn’t only the effects budget that was limited. That limited budget paid for everything, including the interiors WQ derides.
And then, after all of this criticism – after she declares that B5 – and JMS – was a failure - WQ admits that she is still drawn to the show. Strange, that a failure of such magnitude could have such emotional resonance.
ETA: And for the benefit of a certain friend of mine - I haven't forgotten Angel. This particular post has just been on my hard drive for awhile. *g*